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Second Burmese War - 1852

The second Burmese War, which broke out in 1852, was caused by the arrogance of the King of Ava, who was so foolish as to think that he might insult and injure British subjects with impunity; and the result was that all the maritime provinces of Burma (called Pegu, which became a part of the flourishing Chief Commissionership of British Burma) were conquered and annexed in 1852 to the other provinces that had been ceded to the English in the First Burmese War.

In 1826 a long and difficult war in Burma had been brought to a successful conclusion. The Burmese, worsted in the struggle, had been forced to sign two Burma. treaties with their conquerors. The first had settled the terms on which peace was made. The second, concluded some months afterwards, had pledged each of the contracting parties to afford to the traders of the other the utmost protection and security. The arrangements which had been thus made might have endured if other nations besides the British had not been busy in the Eastern Seas. Americans and French were notably looking towards the delta of the Irrawaddy, and Dalhousie concluded that, if he took no action himself, action might be taken by these Powers. Under these circumstances he was led seriously to contemplate a fresh act of interference in Burma.

In the course of years disputes had naturally arisen between the Burmese authorities and British traders, and in 1851 two specific complaints were brought under the notice of the Government of India. In June 1851, Captain Sheppard, the master of the British barque 'Monarch,' was arrested at Rangoon on the charge of having thrown his pilot overboard. According to Sheppard's story, the pilot had run the ship into shoal water, had failed to extricate her, and, 'from fear or shame,' had jumped overboard. The man, however, had disappeared; it was alleged that a sura of money had disappeared with him; and, even in civilised communities, investigation would have been ordered into the causes of his death. In Rangoon judicial inquiries were certain to be attended with abuse. Four months afterwards, another British sailor, Captain Lewis, of the 'Champion,' was charged before the Governor of Rangoon, at the instance of some of his crew, with murdering a sailor. There does not seem to have been any foundation for the charge.

In both these cases the Governor of Rangoon had undoubtedly been wrong, and both of them afforded good grounds for the interference of the British Government. No great country can allow its subjects to be ill-treated by the authorities of other nations, and it is a good thing for British trade that every people should know that the arm of England is long, and that she will not suffer any of her sons to be subjected to injury or extortion. Unfortunately, however, the Don Pacificos who see England in arms to avenge their cause are not usually moderate in their demands. On the first day of 1852 Commodore Lambert, of H.M.S. 'Fox,' received the pacific message from the Court of Ava; on the 4th of January the new Governor arrived; on the 5th, Mr. Edwards, a clerk or assistant-interpreter, was sent to arrange an interview with him; and on the 6th, Commander Fishbourne, Lambert's second in command, was instructed to carry a letter to him, and to arrange a settlement of the difference.

There is, unhappily, too much reason to suppose that Fishbourne, by a neglect of etiquette, partially brought upon himself the discourtesy which he undoubtedly experienced. The Governor, though he had offered no objection to receiving letters or messages informally through Edwards, thought and declared that a formal mission should have been headed by Lambert himself. And Fishbourne's behavior increased his dislike to receiving that officer. He rode into the Governor's compound, and by doing so probably unconsciously outraged the Governor's sense of decorum. And, when he was refused an interview, he displayed an irritation which offended the Governor's dignity. In the East, minute points of etiquette have an importance almost unintelligible to European readers; and the Governor, irritated at Fishbourne's neglect of rule, behaved with scant courtesy. His faults, however, whether grave or venial, were faults of manner, and they were the faults not of the Court of Ava but of the Governor of Rangoon.

Under the circumstances, what was Lambert to do? He had a few days before expressed his belief in the sincerity of the Burmese Court; he had received instructions to refrain from hostilities without express orders from India; and, if he felt himself precluded from pursuing the negotiation with the Governor, he had the alternative of again complaining to Ava or of referring to Calcutta for fresh orders. Instead of doing so, he chose to interpret the conduct of the Governor as the act of captain a nation. He wrote to the Court of Ava, stating that he was obliged to suspend all communication with the Burmese Empire, he declared the Burmese coasts in a state of blockade, and he seized and detained a vessel belonging to the Court as security for the indemnity which he had been instructed to claim.

These harsh and unauthorised measures did not immediately precipitate hostilities. The Burmese, on the contrary, showed a disposition to give way, and an effort towards a reconciliation was made by the Governor of the adjoining territory of Della, who had won Lamberts confidence and respect by his conduct. But these negotiations fell through; and on the 10th of January, Lambert, collecting his prize and the merchant vessels which required his protection, moved down the river. In doing so, for the purpose of affording protection The to the squadron, he anchored the 'Fox' abreast of a stockade which commanded the passage of the river. The Burmese, who were in considerable force in the stockade, perhaps naturally, but unwisely, opened fire on the 'Fox.' The captain of the 'Fox' returned the fire, silenced the stockade, and drove out its garrison; the Burmese war-boats which were stationed nearest the stockade were destroyed by Lambert's orders; and Lambert, having secured a complete and easy victory, stationed the 'Fox' at the mouth of the river.

Hitherto the responsibility for the quarrel had mainly rested with subordinates. The management of the matter was now assumed by the Governor-General. Dalhousie on the 26th of January issued fresh instructions. He demanded 1st, that the Governor of Rangoon ultimashould express in writing his deep regret for the manner in which British officers had been treated; 2nd, that the indemnity should at once be paid; 3rd, that the Governor should consent to receive an accredited agent of the British Government with due honor. If these concessions were made, he undertook to send an officer of rank to adjust the final settlement of the difference, and on its adjustment to restore the Burmese ship and to raise the blockade. If, on the contrary, these concessions were refused, he declared that the British Government would exact for itself reparation for the wrong which it had suffered.

In writing this letter, the Government of India undoubtedly avoided some of the mistakes which had previously been made. In particular, it did not repeat the error of wounding the susceptibilities of an Oriental by asking him to receive an officer of inferior rank. But it ignored the circumstance that the conduct of Lambert in seizing a Burmese ship had altered the whole conditions of the quarrel. Up to that point the sole grievance had been a British grievance, and the demand for reparation had been exclusively a British demand. Lambert by his action had thrown away this advantage. He had, in his turn, given the Burmese a grievance; and the Governor of Rangoon thenceforward insisted, and from a Burmese standpoint rightly insisted, that the Burmese ship should be surrendered at the same time as the indemnity was paid.

This circumstance was, however, of less importance as the difference was already getting wider. The despatch in which the Government of India made its last demand was forwarded through Lambert; and Lambert, in order to deliver it, carried the 'Fox' up the river. To do so he had necessarily to repass the stockade which he had already encountered; and its garrison, untaught by previous experience, re-opened fire on the vessel. In this conflict the 'Fox' was again successful, and the stockade silenced. But in the course of the contest a sailor oil board the 'Fox' was mortally wounded. The prospects of peace were not increased by successive encounters unfortunately attended with bloodshedding.

Up to the date of this occurrence Dalhousie had acted with laudable moderation. In his original instructions to Lambert, as well as in his demand of the 26th of January, he had studiously avoided requiring more than the Burmese had originally conceded. If common care had been taken in the first instance by Lambert to respect the susceptibilities of an uncivilised people; if Lambert, in opposition to his orders, had not committed an act of war by seizing a Burmese vessel, and by blockading the Burmese coasts; if even he had taken the precaution to notify his reasons for passing up the river in the ' Fox ;' there is every reason for believing that war might have been avoided.

But the responsibility for the later proceedings does not rest with Lambert but with Dalhousie. He had hitherto wisely separated the Governor of Rangoon from the Burmese Government; the only chance of peace lay in maintaining this distinction. Instead of preserving it, and of waiting for an apology from Ava, he decided on at once exacting reparation by arms. Orders were issued for the immediate preparation of a considerable expedition. It was calculated that the troops selected for the service could be ready by the 20th of March. Only one loophole was left for the Court of Ava. If, on the arrival of the force at Rangoon, the required apology were offered, it was to be accepted. But, in addition to the original compensation of 1,000 , a further sum of 100,000 was to be exacted from the Burmese. If these demands were at once conceded, but difficulty arose in obtaining so large a sum of money, Rangoon and Martaban were to be placed temporarily in British hands as security for the payment; but, if either the demand were refused, or the Burmese declined to yield two of their most important towns, war was at once to begin.

Such were the circumstances under which the second Burmese war commenced. Whatever judgment may be formed as to its policy, no two opimons can be expressed upon its conduct. When Dalhousie struck, he always struck hard. By the end of March the expedition which he had prepared was ready for action. General Godwin, its commander, attempted to ascertain whether the Burmese Government had made the requisite concessions; but the vessel which he despatched with a flag of truce for the purpose was fired on by the Burmese, and Godwin had no alternative but to commence the war.

Martaban was taken by the British on the 5th of April; Rangoon itself fell a week afterwards. After these successes a short respite was afforded in order that the Burmese Government might have the opportunity of making terms. But the Burmese Government did not, perhaps dared not, concede the reparation which the British demanded. In consequence the war was continued till Pegu, and the whole province of which it is the capital, were conquered. Even then, the Court of Ava refused to yield; and the British, instead of continuing the war, decided on annexing the conquered territory to the British dominions. Few nations ever resented a conquest more bitterly than the Burmese. The King of Ava lost his throne; and his successor, for years, declined to acknowledge that the province of Pegu was no longer a part of the Burmese Empire. At last, ten years after the Burmese war, he consented to conclude a treaty with the British, and to recognise the loss which it was useless for him any longer to deny.

There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune. There is a tide in the affairs of India which bears on the strongest men to a policy of annexation. Since the days of Wellesley no stronger man than Dalhousie had been sent to govern the Indian Empire. Since the days of Cornwallis no Governor-General had been more anxious to refrain from increasing the Company's dominions. Yet events had proved too strong for Dalhousie, as they had proved too strong for all his predecessors. The mutiny of the Sikh army had forced him to commence the war which had been terminated by the annexation of the Punjab. The lawlessness of the Burmese and the errors of Lambert had carried him into the hostilities which had terminated with the conquest of Pegu ; and, in the four years which had passed since he set foot in India, Dalhousie had done more than almost any of his predecessors to extend the sway of British rule and to enlarge the responsibilities of British rulers.

Yet, great as were the additions which he had already made to the British possessions in India, when men talk of the annexations of Dalhousie they do not usually refer to the consequences of the second Sikh war, or to the conquest of Pegu ; they generally allude to the annexation of Oudh. The formal addition of that great Oudh. province to the possessions of the Company is rightly regarded as the most important circumstance in Dalhousie's administration, and the verdict on the character of his rule will probably ultimately depend on the opinion which may be formed on this part of his policy.




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